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Panera Bread restaurant holds “Light the Night” event, kicks off holiday fundraiser for local nonprofit
Staff and family members gathered at Panera Bread Dawsonville on Nov. 19 to celebrate the kickoff of the holiday season with the lighting of the cafe. - photo by Erica Jones

On Friday Nov. 19, the Panera Bread restaurant in Dawson County held its first annual “Light up the Night” event, celebrating the holiday season with the lighting of the cafe and kicking off a holiday fundraiser in support of The Place Holiday House 2021. 

Panera Bread Dawsonville is decorated on all sides with shining Christmas lights in celebration of the 2021 holiday season. - photo by Erica Jones

According to Director of Operations Mike Duffessy, the idea of Panera’s restaurant locations collecting gifts for children in need started several years ago with a group of 12 locations collecting gifts with “Angel Trees”. 

“We started it eight years ago in one location and got a hundred gifts, thought that was pretty cool so said let’s try three or four,” Duffessy said. “The last year we did it before covid, so 2019, we got up to like 4,000 gifts with our 12 locations and we gave them to the Salvation Army’s angel tree program.” 

Since that year, Duffessy said the 12 locations, plus another 23 franchise locations, were bought out by a restaurant company called Bluegrass, so now the group is 35 strong. Shannon Taylor, director of marketing, said that Bluegrass has been very supportive of Panera Bread continuing community involvement with things like the Christmas gift fundraisers. 

“They’re very heavily focused on being involved with the community that our cafes are in, whether that be chamber membership, partnerships with a lot of the schools, but really becoming part of the community,” Taylor said.

The idea to partner with The Place Holiday House, Taylor said, came together smoothly from partnerships that Panera already held with the nonprofit. 

“Our end-of-day donation partner at this cafe is RIC-Rack; they’re partnered with The Place Dawson which in turn is The Place Forsyth, so it kind of all organically came together,” Taylor said. “So this cafe and the Cumming cafe are both gonna collect for the holidays to benefit The Place Holiday House.” 

Now through mid-December, Panera will collect new, unwrapped toys and gifts to donate to the Holiday House. Taylor said that there’s a request list on the Christmas tree set up inside of the restaurant with gift ideas for boys and girls of all ages, but that any toy donation is welcomed. 

Panera Bread Dawsonville is decorated on all sides with shining Christmas lights in celebration of the 2021 holiday season. - photo by Erica Jones

In addition to gift donations, the Holiday House also asks for donations of wrapping paper and tape so the parents can wrap their gifts for their children. 

“The parents are allowed to then go into the house and then essentially shop so they get to pick out ‘Oh Johnny’s favorite thing is Paw Patrol so we’ll go to the Paw Patrol section’,” Taylor said. “They’re also asking for wrapping paper and tape because that’s another thing that they would have to go out and purchase, so they ask for that as well just to help out.”

Taylor said the Holiday House has asked for all of the donations Panera collects to be dropped off by Dec. 15, but that any gifts that are brought in after that can be saved for next year or taken to The Place at a later time. 

"We came up with the idea of what if we lit up the cafe with holiday lights and really try to get the local community involved,” Duffessy said. “We’re hoping people will come by and see the Panera Bread and see the lights and drop off any type of gift that they would like to donate for the needy children.” Duffessy said that lighting up the cafe in celebration of the holiday season is a way of bringing in more community members to view the lights and drop off gifts. 

Ryan Fox with company Lights All Year decorated the restaurant with hundreds of shining white lights, a huge light-up wreath and larger-than-life lit-up snowflakes. Once darkness fell on Nov. 19, the staff, family and friends of Panera Bread Dawsonville stood outside and cheered as the lights were officially all turned on, illuminating the exterior of the cafe. 

Duffessy said his whole team has set a goal of collecting 1,000 gifts between the Dawsonville and Cumming locations. He added that he’s extremely excited to help give back to the community, and especially excited to partner with such a great local community to do so. 

Panera Bread Dawsonville is decorated on all sides with shining Christmas lights in celebration of the 2021 holiday season. - photo by Erica Jones

“We’ve been in Dawsonville for five years and they’ve just been great to us; it’s just been a really great local community cafe for us and we just felt this one really deserved a little special attention,” Duffessy said. “We feel like this time of year it’s very important to give back, and I’m excited to do it with this local community for sure.” 

To drop off a Christmas gift in support of Panera’s gift drive for The Place Holiday House 2021, take toys or gifts to Panera Bread Dawsonville at 321 Power Center Drive or to Panera Bread Cumming at 500 Lakeland Plaza. For more information on the restaurants’ holiday fundraisers, stop by either restaurant or call the Dawsonville restaurant at (706)216-3996. 

For more information about The Place Holiday House 2021 including a full list of gift ideas, go to